What the Hell Happened to Eddie Murphy?
By this point in the “What the Hell Happened?” series, a pattern has developed. The career usually begins with TV roles or modeling gigs. Then a big break, super stardom and a stint on the A-list.
Sometimes the celebrity rides on the top of the a-list for years. Other times, they come crashing down relatively quickly. Eventually, their time in the spotlight ends. Sometimes they flame out in a spectacularly public fashion. Other times, they just walk away.
Eddie Murphy’s story breaks from the formula. Sure, there is a rise and fall. But in Murphy’s case, there’s not just one.
Murphy rose to superstardom, slipped into irrelevance, reinvented himself as a family friendly leading man, had a scandal, dropped into obscurity, and then threatened to stage a come back multiple times without ever actually coming back.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to tackle Murphy as soon as possible. He was dangerously close to a come back as recently as a few months ago. Word of mouth on Tower Heights was that it would reignite Murphy’s career. His friend, Tower Heights director Bret Ratner, hired him to host the Academy Awards. Murphy was poised for a comeback.
Then Tower Heights disappointed at the box office, Ratner quit the Academy Awards show in scandal and Murphy quietly excused himself. The come back was cancelled.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s start at the beginning of the story.
Murphy started performing as a stand-up comedian as a teenager. At 17, he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live.
In the early 80s, SNL was in its first real slump. It was actually facing the possibility of cancellation. Murphy and co-star Joe Piscopo were the sole stand-outs of the cast and arguably saved the show.
While Murphy was still on SNL, he made his feature film debut in 1982′s 48 Hours.
I don’t think the impact of 48 Hours can be over-stated. It wasn’t just a smash hit. It practically invented a genre that would dominate the film landscape for the next decade. The buddy cop movie began with Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours.
Murphy was already a star on TV. But 48 Hours made him a movie star. The Golden Globes named Murphy the New Star of the Year.
The following year, Murphy teamed with SNL alumn Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. Trading Places was directed by John Landis who would work with Murphy two more times. The rich man/poor man comedy was an even greater hit than 48 Hours.
Murphy was 2 for 2 in Hollywood and was still a star on TV. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical for Trading Places. Plus he had a hit stand-up comedy special in Eddie Murphy: Delirious that same year.
Murphy’s career was hot. He wasn’t just a rising star. He was shooting straight to the top. Following Trading Places, Dan Aykroyd actually wrote a part in Ghostbusters specifically for Murphy. Murphy was unable to work it into his schedule due to his commitment to Beverly Hills Cop, so the part went to Ernie Hudson instead.
In 1984, Murphy made his first misstep. He appeared in the notorious turkey, Best Defense.
Test screenings for the Dudley Moore comedy were so horrible that the studio created Murphy’s part after the fact. The movie was then marketed as an Eddie Murphy movie despite the fact his role is a glorified cameo. He’s even credited as a “strategic guest star”.
When he hosted SNL later that year, Murphy joked about the failure of Best Defense and how he thought it might have killed his movie career. He jokingly admitted to making Best Defense for the money.
Later that year, Murphy rebounded with Beverly Hills Cop.
Beverly Hills Cop was the movie that made Murphy a star. Up until this point, Murphy was a rising star. But Beverly Hills Cop cemented his A-list status with authority. It also nabbed him another Golden Globe nomination.
Before Murphy signed on to star in Beverly Hills Cop, Sylvester Stallone was attached to the project. Stallone famously walked off Beverly Hills Cop because he was uncomfortable the comedy.
When Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop was a huge action-comedy hit, Stallone responded with his version of the movie.
Stallone’s Cobra was only unintentionally funny. It highlighted the changing tides as Murphy eclipsed Stallone on the A-list.
How big was Murphy after Beverly Hills Cop? Big enough that he was allowed to start a recording career. Big enough that Rick James produced his record. And big enough that his single, Party All the Time, was actually a hit in spite of sounding like this:
Party All the Time has to embrass Murphy today. It qualifies him for one-hit wonder status. But it also speaks to just how big of a star he was at the time. They don’t let you make a vanity record unless you’re a superstar.